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Words like Sapphires: 15th-Century Hebrew Books at the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

A page from a printed Hebrew book.

Commentary on Psalms by David Kimhi. [Bologna], 1477. In the colophon shown here, the printer praises the beauty of the printed words “shining like sapphires in the eyes of all who see them.” He also expresses wonder over the ability to produce “300 copies all at once,” as this will help Jews preserve their faith “for all generations.” Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division. No. 4 in the Research Guide.

It was apparently a case of love at first sight. How else to describe those first encounters between the earliest Hebrew printers and that newfangled technology that was spreading across Europe? Already in the first dated Hebrew book, printed in Italy in 1475, the printer expressed passionate wonder over the new invention, and he was not alone. In Spain, in Portugal, in Italy, Hebrew printers took to the new technology with enthusiasm, turning out classics of the Jewish bookshelf one after another: rabbinic law codes and responsa; prayer books; translations of Arabic philosophy; belles-lettres; even the entire Hebrew Bible itself, complete with commentaries and Aramaic translation. Today, however, these early Hebrew books are rare, with only some 170 titles known to exist. While we cannot know just how many separate titles and editions were lost over time, whether through too much use or the exigencies of persecution and exile, they are today rare enough to be considered as brands snatched from the fire, and to figure amongst the crown jewels of any Hebraic collection.

The Library of Congress is home to 37 of these “crown jewels” of Hebrew printing, that is, to Hebrew books printed during the fifteenth century. These incunabula or “cradle-books,” as books printed before 1500 are generally known, are divided between the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division (with twenty-four books), and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division (with thirteen). Altogether they represent thirty different titles, since seven titles are held in both divisions. A newly published Research Guide can help you learn more about these books.

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As we move through the Digital Age, it might be difficult for us to appreciate just what the printing press meant to those first Hebrew printers. Yet they were just as excited and moved by the new technology as we are by the technology in our own day and age, and just as alive to its transformative powers. Let us listen to the words of one of these printers, enshrined in a six-line poem on the last page of a Hebrew Commentary on Psalms printed in 1477, probably in Bologna. It is an extremely important book in its own right, for it is the first printed book with any portion of the Hebrew Bible. But for now, what most interests us is what it reveals about the printer’s attitude towards his work. We bring his words in translation:

On completing the books set in typeface quire by quire,
One job and behold! three hundred books to admire:
Psalms with Kimhi’s glosses shining like sapphires.
Because of this we praise God upon timbrel and lyre,
For they will enable every generation to learn and acquire
And preserve the words in them, as our very limbs desire.

Reading the poem, we almost feel like we are right there with the printer, exulting over the books as they come off the press, 300 books at a time. Indeed, we can almost hear him snapping his fingers in sheer amazement! No more copying by hand word by word, line by line, one manuscript at a time.

Another motif in the poem is the beauty of the words on the printed page, “shining like sapphires in the eyes of all who see them.” This imagery takes us back to the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Muslim Spain, when poets such as Moses ibn Ezra (ca. 1055-1138) and Judah Halevi (ca. 1075-1141) wrote poems in praise of the written word, likening the whiteness of the paper to marble or alabaster, and the written word to gold, onyx or sapphires – especially sapphires, thanks to the wordplay in Hebrew between sefer (ספר, a book) and sapir (ספיר, a sapphire). The transfer of images from manuscript to moveable type appears seamless, highlighting the ease with which the printing press entered the most sacred spaces in Jewish life and culture.

A page from a printed Hebrew book.

“Commentary on the Prayers” by David ben Joseph Abudarham. Lisbon: Eliezer Toledano, 1489. The author, one of the great Jewish scholars of Spain, lived in Seville in the middle of the 14th century. Witnessing the decline of Spanish Jewry over a century before the Expulsion, he wrote this commentary on the Hebrew prayers in order to sum up the knowledge of the ages, hoping in this way to help ensure its survival. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division. No. 20 in the Research Guide.”

We thus see the printer marveling over the beauty of the printed work and the ability to produce multiple copies. The third and final advantage of printing is ensconced in the last three lines of the poem. It is less obvious than the previous two, but once we understand it in context, we see that this is really the heart of the matter, for it addresses the fear of many contemporary Jews over the future of Judaism; or rather their concern over whether Judaism had a future at all. The invention of printing caught the Jewish people at a critical moment in history. Spanish Jewry, once the most important Jewish community in the world, was crumbling under the pressures of the Reconquista and, from 1478, from the terrors of the Inquisition. Entire Jewish communities were in flight; Hebrew texts were going up in flames. And now, here was an invention that could produce multiple copies all at once and, by doing so, ensure the survival of Jewish teachings and perhaps of Judaism itself. The printer marveled over the 300 books printed in one fell swoop because they made it that much likelier that future generations would be able to study Jewish teachings. No wonder that another poet from this period, one whose poem comes at the end of a Pentateuch printed in Lisbon in 1491 (a fragment of which is no. 26 in the Research Guide), praises its printer as a פועל וחוקק דת (l. 9), that is, “a laborer and printer of religion,” and deems the printed book “more valuable than gold.”

More valuable than gold, indeed.

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